Personal Immigration

Visa processing times: How quickly will your application be decided?

Once you have submitted an application to the Home Office it is helpful to know when to expect a decision, and what you may be able to do if no decision is received within a reasonable time.

The Home Office has customer service standards for processing applications submitted after 1 January 2014. The standards (which experience indicates are met in many cases) include the provision of biometric data and are as follows:

Straight forward applications from outside the UK:

  • Non-settlement visa applications: 90% to be decided within 3 weeks;
  • Non-settlement visa applications: 100% to be decided within 12 weeks;
  • Settlement applications: 95% to be decided within 12 weeks;
  • Settlement applications: 100% to be decided within 24 weeks.

Straight forward applications from inside the UK:

  • Time limited applications (including spouses, workers, entrepreneurs, students and organisations wishing to sponsor a worker) submitted by post to be decided within 8 weeks;
  • Time limited applications (including spouses, workers, entrepreneurs, students and organisations wishing to sponsor a worker) submitted using the priority postal service to be decided within 10 days;
  • Time limited applications (including spouses, workers, entrepreneurs, students and organisations wishing to sponsor a worker) submitted in person using the premium service to be decided on the same day;
  • Organisations updating their sponsor licence details to be processed within 18 weeks;
  • Applications from Croatian nationals wanting to live, work or study in the UK to be decided within 6 months;
  • Applications from Turkish nationals applying under the European Community Association Agreement (commonly referred to as the Ankara Agreement) and right of abode to be decided within 6 months;
  • Applications from non-EEA nationals for residence cards under the European Regulations to be decided within 6 months.

If there is a problem with the application or the Home Office considers that the application is complex the Home Office will, within 8 weeks (for the 12 week standard) or 12 weeks (for the 6 month standard) write with reasons stating that the application will not be decided within the normal timeframe. There is no commitment to provide an alternative time scale and no indication of the potential implications if the application is not decided within the published standards. There is no published service standard for applications that are not straightforward, applications submitted on or before 1 January 2014, or for applications for indefinite leave to remain in the UK in any category.

The Home Office has historically been given a very wide margin of appreciation with regard to the timing of their decisions as the courts are unwilling to interfere with what is viewed as essentially an administrative matter. The main exceptions to this approach are in relation to applications under EU law (where maximum response times, which vary from “immediately” to “within 6 months” depending on the particular circumstances, are set in accordance with Free Movement Directive 2004/38 EC) and, to a lesser extent, where it can be established that delay has itself caused significant detriment to the applicant.

The historic approach permitting the Home Office to take as much time as they like has left many people, not just those who apply at a time when they have no lawful status in the UK, in limbo – unable to travel and increasingly unable to function normally in society. Fundamental tasks such as opening a bank account, renting accommodation (whether an existing property or a new one) and taking (or remaining in) employment can all become increasingly difficult – even when the individual is lawfully present in the UK throughout the decision making period. These difficulties (which have not always been considered to be sufficiently significant) are likely to be compounded by changes introduced by the Immigration Act 2014.

The legal fiction that the decision making process is a purely administrative matter for the Home Office without impact on the individuals awaiting a decision (or their family members) is partially exposed in R (Said & Others) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2015] EWHC 879 (Admin), a claim for judicial review of the failure to make a decision where the relevant applications had been outstanding for over a decade. The case has a complex factual and legal history and addresses many areas of law; however for the purposes of this article it is relatively straight forward. It confirms that applications which were deemed to have been submitted on 1 September 2004 and had been received and validated by the relevant department on 20 September 2004 should have been decided no later than 20 December 2004. It also confirms that the subsequent delay in making relevant decisions was capable of causing, and in the particular case had caused, harm for which the Home Office were liable in damages. As one of the applicants had died by the time the High Court decision was handed down on 29 April 2015 his estate has been permitted to pursue the matter.

However, the findings in that case were based on a Home Office acknowledgment letter (stating: “We should deal with postal applications within 13 weeks at the most from the time we receive them in IND.”) and an internal note (identifying the 13 week target date as 20 December 2004). Without these two factors it appears that the outcome would have been different as no other basis for an obligation to decide the applications by a definite date was identified (although there was a concession of maladministration). A Home Office claim that the 13 week target was merely aspirational or indicative of when the application may be considered rather than decided was found to be “untenable” on the facts, rather than as a matter of law.

Thus, the Home Office appears to have almost unlimited freedom to determine applications whenever they see fit, subject only to self-imposed restrictions which can be easily withdrawn.

The very real harm suffered by the Said family was caused by the actual time taken to make a decision, yet Home Office liability for that harm only arose as a result of the self-imposed restrictions. Whether another family submitting their applications today and waiting until 2025 for any decisions would be successful in an application for judicial review remains to be seen; it is to be hoped that such a delay would not occur.

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